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Sunday, 04 August 2013 22:00

Partners build $7M apple processing plant to ease local constraints

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Crews from D&K Engineered Construction work to wrap up construction on the new $7 million apple processing and packaging facility for Elite Apple Co. in Sparta Township. The plant partners expect to process about 1 million bushels of apples per year at the plant. Crews from D&K Engineered Construction work to wrap up construction on the new $7 million apple processing and packaging facility for Elite Apple Co. in Sparta Township. The plant partners expect to process about 1 million bushels of apples per year at the plant. PHOTO: JOE BOOMGAARD

More trees per acre, higher yields drive need for new capacity

Advances in growing techniques and higher yields have put a strain on apple processing and packaging plants in West Michigan, particularly in northwestern Kent County.

But a new $7 million, 55,000-square-foot purpose-built plant aims to help address those constraints, as well as give the partners in the project more say over their operations.

Elite Apple Co. LLC will open before the apple harvest this fall at a site on 10 Mile Road in Sparta Township, in the heart of what’s known as “The Ridge.”

“We picked Sparta because it’s an ag-friendly community and it lies in the middle of apple production in the state,” said Scott Swindeman of Applewood Land Co. based in Deerfield, Mich., one of the partners in the project. Swindeman noted that about 70 percent of Michigan’s fresh apples come from “The Ridge” in northwest Kent County. “It just made sense to put this facility in the area where apples are produced, and six of the seven partners have growing operations within five miles.”

The discussions to start a new packing plant date to five or six years ago when a handful of growers and outside partners planned a new facility specifically to handle SweeTango, a hot new apple variety being grown in the region, he said. While the initial plans fell apart, the land for a packing facility had already been secured, and some of the partners regrouped a couple of years ago to start planning for what would become Elite Apple.

In particular, a pronounced need for more apple packing facilities led some members of the original group back to the table, Swindeman said, noting partner Ken Hubert was “the spark plug” who ultimately got the project off the ground.

Other contributing factors to the location of the facility include the site’s location on 10 Mile Road, a Class-A road, as well as the availability of utilities, he said.

The company secured a 50-percent tax abatement on the property from Sparta Township with the help of The Right Place Inc.

Rick Chapla, vice president of business development at The Right Place, said the project was a key step in the ongoing development of the agribusiness and food processing sector in West Michigan.

“It’s very entrepreneurial,” Chapla said. “Elite offers vertically integrated, value-added processing and it’s all family-owned, multi-generational businesses doing this. We’re really thrilled with this project because it signifies our strength in the agricultural marketplace. It typifies what companies here are doing.”

As of the most recent 2007 U.S. Department of Agriculture Census of Agriculture, Kent County had 118 farms with 9,325 acres dedicated to apple production, the most of any county in the state and the eighth highest of any county in the U.S.

As agricultural practices have improved over the years, growers have been able to get better at producing fruits such as apples, Swindeman said.

A third-generation apple grower in Southeast Michigan, Swindeman said his grandfather used to plant his orchards with 40 trees per acre. Given new growing techniques and apple varieties, Swindeman’s company, Deerfield-based Applewood Orchards Inc., plants from 1,000 to 1,200 trees per acre, and the same goes for growers in West Michigan. Just as importantly, they’re able to get substantially higher yields per tree and start production on younger trees than growers in previous generations, he said.

That industry shift has strained existing packing plants.

“With more orchards comes more infrastructure,” he said. “There are so many acres of new trees and new production coming in. The technology continues to change, and we compete in a world market. We decided we wanted to do it and do it right. This facility will allow us to compete even with ever-increasing (food safety) regulations.”

The Elite Apple facility will include “the latest and greatest” in equipment, including sorting machines from New Zealand that can scan apples and detect defects on the outside and inside of a fruit, Swindeman said. The facility also has packaging capabilities for fresh apple applications, whether polybags or molded display packs for grocery stores.

The partners expect to be able to process 1 million bushels of apples through Elite Apple on an annual basis. The plant will initially be open about nine months out of the year. Elite Apple plans to employ about 50 people per shift over two shifts during the busiest of the harvest season in September and October, Swindeman said.

Elite Apple’s plant is designed for the efficient linear movement of products, and the apples move from west to east in the facility. Picked apples are delivered by truck to the west end of the plant, where there’s a limited amount of storage. Swindeman says most local growers already have enough storage, so duplicating the space at Elite just did not make sense.

After they’re offloaded, the apples are moved to a climate-controlled room to be washed and waxed. Then they’re put through a process to dry the wax before being manually inspected and run through scanning machines to check for defects and size. Apples that pass inspection are then labeled and carried on conveyors to packing operations. The packages are placed in storage at the east end of the plant before getting shipped for retail sales, for use as fresh slices or for export.

Swindeman says Elite hopes to begin operations just after the first of August to run trials and to work the bugs out of the automated processes.

There’s also room to expand in three directions at the existing site if needed, he said.

Swindeman’s company, Applewood Orchards, is also a partner with Ridgeking Apple Packing & Storage and Michigan Fresh Marketing LLC in All Fresh GPS LLC, a company that represents more than 75 family-owned orchards in marketing fresh apples throughout the United States and global markets.

All Fresh GPS also markets for Heeren Bros. Inc., which is in the midst of building a $22 million packing and distribution plant and headquarters in Alpine Township. At the same time, Ridgeking is investing $5.6 million in new high-tech packing lines that will double its capacity.

Read 9750 times Last modified on Sunday, 04 August 2013 13:56

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